Better Boy works hard. Better Boy thrives anywhere it grows. Better Boy is meaty and juicy. Better Boy explodes with flavor.
No, I’m not talking about Solanum lycopersicum, everybody’s favorite brawny, bloodred, beefsteak tomato. I’m talking about Adam McFarland and Tom Rogers, the chef duo that grew out of a fertile landscape of esteemed fine-dining kitchens across the land to burst forth last summer as the pop-up/catering/private event powerhouse Better Boy.
It won’t be long before Chicagoans start clawing each others’ eyes out in competition for table times at their forthcoming brick-and-mortar restaurant. But in the meantime, you can strut right into Ludlow Liquors and order a la carte from a soigne five-course sampler of their formidable skills at the next Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up.
I’m still haunted by the brown butter–butterscotch pudding with toasted hazelnuts they threw down at the Umamicue Friendsgiving last fall. The truffled celery root mash with stuffing crumble and chicken jus they summoned forth was one of the finest things I’d eaten in 2022.
They make it seem easy, this hyper-seasonal, refined-yet-unstuffy, fine-dining approach to itinerant cheffing. Yet it’s been decades in the making. Rogers and McFarland met on the line under Bill Kim at the late, great Le Lan in 2009, but their collective vision came into focus a few years later at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern before the word “seasonal” was a buzzword.
“Before it became the sexy thing to say, it was farm to table,” says McFarland. “Because we were getting all of our produce at the Union Square Greenmarket and walking it back a few blocks away, you knew how to treat those ingredients with respect, because you were trying to impress the people that you were working with.”
“It’s the culture, the food, the way that that operation works,” says Rogers. “It was also seeing the things that weren’t super sexy back then like fermentation, pickling. All the stuff that you see now just kind of got into our food. It became a huge influence on the way we cook and the way we think about food.”
Their paths diverged and overlapped through the years, each cooking under great chefs at great restaurants, but both returned to Chicago to start families—and to open a spot together. They started popping up at farmers’ markets and breweries last summer, but in the new year they dialed it back to focus on their plan for a casual, fine-dining neighborhood restaurant where they’re on the line, all the time.
“When people sit down to eat our food, we like them to know what time of year it is,” says McFarland. Right now, when spring is still a flickering glimmer, it’s time for chicken liver mousse bruschetta with shaved mushrooms and a balsamic drizzle; a marinated and roasted portobello salad with arugula and bleu cheese; buffalo milk ricotta ravioli with a creamy smoked onion sauce; smoked pork chops with a caramelized fish sauce vinaigrette; and a deconstructed cheesecake with hazelnut and black sesame crumble and red wine braised prunes.
McFarland and Rogers say their food goes best with beer or wine, and while Ludlow is widely known as a cocktail bar, beverage director Joel Gitskin has been beefing up the wine program lately, so look for some spot-on pairings for these dishes.
This Foodball is a turning point. In the last few months, on a handful of occasions, Better Boy has come close to nailing down a permanent location and blowing up under a brand new name. This could be the final chance to taste their food before the hordes pounce on the big new tomato in town.
Friends, it’s walk-in orders only at 2959 N. California in Avondale. Get it this Monday, March 27, starting at 5 PM, before a bigger, stronger animal snatches it from your hungry jaws.
Meantime, there’s one more Foodball to go before we announce a new spring schedule. It’s a mindbender: “Japonsime” by cheesemonger Alisha Norris Jones, aka Immortal Milk, on Monday, April 3. More to come . . .